What did Al Capone, Ludwig van Beethoven and Abraham Lincoln have in common? They all allegedly had syphilis. Obviously, Lincoln didn’t die from it, but it’s believed that he infected Mary whose knife-like back pain, dementia, impaired coordination, weight loss and blindness gave evidence that she’d been infected.
Today, thanks to antibiotics, people rarely die from syphilis or any of the twenty-odd other varieties of sexually transmitted diseases. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote in a fact sheet that STDs continue to threaten millions of Americans.
“STDs are a substantial health challenge facing the United States. CDC estimates that nearly 20 million new sexually transmitted infections occur every year, accounting for almost $16 billion in health care costs annually.
“Many cases of Chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis continue to go undiagnosed and unreported, and data on several additional STDs, such as human papillomavirus and herpes simplex virus, are not routinely reported to CDC,” the fact sheet said. “As a result, national surveillance data captures only a fraction of America’s STD burden.”
There are a lot of challenges to maintaining and strengthening core prevention infrastructure which the CDC says is essential to making a difference nationally. Not the least of which is the stigma attached to having a discussion about how STDs are caused and how to prevent them.
The organisms that cause STDs most often pass from person to person in blood, semen or vaginal and other bodily fluids, the Mayo Clinic says. “Sometimes these infections can be transmitted non-sexually, such as from mother to infant during pregnancy or childbirth, or through blood transfusions or shared needles.
“It’s possible to contract sexually transmitted diseases from people who seem perfectly healthy, and who may not even be aware of the infection. STDs don’t always cause symptoms. That’s why they may go unnoticed until complications occur or a partner is diagnosed.”
The CDC says that although antibiotics can cure chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis these diseases if left untreated can put “men, women and infants at risk for severe, lifelong health outcomes like chronic pain, severe reproductive health complications, and HIV.”
The most obvious method of prevention is to abstain from sex. The next best is to stay in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who isn’t infected.
“Avoid vaginal and anal intercourse with new partners until you have both been tested for STDs,” Mayo Clinic advises. “Oral sex is less risky but use a latex condom or dental dam to prevent direct contact between the oral and genital mucous membranes.”
Please have your children vaccinated for human papillomavirus (HPV) when they are 11 or 12. And, remember that there are vaccines for hepatitis A and B for children and adults.
STDs know no age limits. The more people you have sex with exponentially increases your chance of infection as does having a history of STDs. Having one sexually transmitted infection makes it much easier for another one to take hold.
Anyone who has been forced to have sexual intercourse or sexual activity is at higher risk for acquiring an STD. “Dealing with rape or assault can be difficult, but it’s important to be seen as soon as possible. Screening, treatment and emotional support can be offered,” Mayo says.
As your relationship develops, it’s critical that you and your partner get tested for STDs. Planned Parenthood suggests that a good way to open the conversation is to say that you care about your health and the health of your partner.
“This is hard for me to talk about,” you might say. “But, I care about you and I think it’s important. How do you feel about going to get tested for STDs together?” If you’ve gone through treatment and are disease-free you should tell your partner in words like, “I took medicine and I don’t have it anymore. But it showed me how common and sneaky STDs are. Have you been tested?”
If your partner refuses, you might think about whether or not this person is the right one for you. “Someone who won’t help you stay healthy may not be the best person to have a relationship with,” Planned Parenthood says. I can’t agree more.
Sandpoint Women’s Health offers options for the prevention, testing, and treatment of STDs.
Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.